Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barack Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr

I was reading a reflection on the inauguration by Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, when I encountered the following observation.

Our new president, more than many others, seems to have a pragmatic sense of limitation built into his exultant rhetoric. The master of “Yes, we can!” has read his Reinhold Niebuhr.

Niebuhr is probably the greatest American theologian. There are some Calvinists who will argue for Jonathan Edwards, and you could make a case that since Paul Tillich wrote most of his best theology after he came to the United States from Germany, he might claim first place. But as much as I love Tillich, my vote goes to Niebuhr. It’s not just that he is a great theologian; his perspective is in many ways uniquely shapes by his experience in the United States. And his insights speak with special depth to our national soul. But even beyond his theology, Niebuhr might also be the greatest American political philosopher.

Reading Reinhold Niebuhr used to be expected of anyone with serious political aspirations, but in recent decades as our politics have become increasingly polarized, few people want to spend time reflecting on shades of gray or contemplating the ways in which self-interest corrupts even our highest ideals.

I did a quick internet search and came up with several references to Obama and Niebuhr. David Brooks heard of Obama’s interest in Niebuhr and asked him about it. “I love him.” Obama answered. “He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

Brooks asked him what central point he took away from his reading of Niebuhr. Obama answered, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”

It would be a wonderful thing for our nation and our world if the world view of our government were shaped by the “Christian Realism” that Niebuhr advocated and President Obama seems to endorse.


  1. How exciting is it to have a leader with the proclaimed vision and integrity in such a prominent and influential position as our newly elected president? How long can he sustain his enthusiasm? Does he have the support to implement any of his programs? When will the lamb be taken to slaughter?

  2. My apologies for the reference to the lamb. Not wishing to offend or discourage I will attempt to clarify. With a changing administration there is a honeymoon period-individuals and committees jockeying for position of favor and leverage. When business begins in earnest the resultant policies and programs will be evaluated by the media/masses. No solution will be ideal. No solution will create change quickly enough. And not everyone will be served by the results. When this time comes the cries of intolerance of the Bush administration will be muted by the disgruntled opposition who are already attempting to dislodge the democratic party. The glory days of the $4.25/gal fuel can return very quickly if Obama can be manipulated out of favor. Is it a coincidence that gas dropped like a stone to $1.50 when it became apparent the political environment was about to be radically changed? Is it a stroke of misfortune that unplugged the stock market and relieved the middle class of its hard earned retirement funds? This is classic cut and run. These dirty rats have been manipulating the cash flow to their advantage at our expense for years. When they were put on notice that things were going to change monies were pulled and redistributed. The question is where will they get the cash from now?